Assessment: Percival Everett rewrites the Southern racial narrative

On the Shelf

The Timber

By Percival Everett
Graywolf: 288 pages, $16

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“If you want to know a place, you talk to its history,” says Mama Z, one of many characters in Percival Everett’s “The Trees.” Mama Z is the native root physician in Cash, Miss., the setting for a lot of the novel. It was in Cash, in 1955, that 14-year outdated Emmett Until, a Black boy visiting relations from Chicago, was kidnapped, tortured, lynched and dumped within the Tallahatchie River. His mom, Mamie Till, insisted on an open casket regardless of her son’s horrific accidents so the world might see what had been carried out to her son.

Everett is a USC professor and the acclaimed writer of twenty-two novels, most not too long ago “Telephone,” an experimental novel launched in three completely different variations. In “The Trees” he experiments with historical past, partly within the character of Mama Z, who has chronicled each single lynching since 1913, the 12 months of her start (all 7,006 of them). However what he’s actually as much as is a radical style recreation each hilarious and lethal critical.

The novel opens with Everett’s evaluation of Cash, Miss., which “looks exactly like it sounds. Named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony and with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away.”

The butt of the joke right here is the white Institution, lowered by Everett’s tropes and puns to a redneck laughingstock. The preliminary focus is on the Bryant household, members of whom have been accountable for Until’s demise. Their dialogue is rendered in pidgin English, their naming conventions the stuff of slapstick: “Also at the gathering was Granny C’s brother’s youngest boy, Junior Junior. His father, J.W. Milam, was called Junior, and so his son was Junior Junior, never J. Junior, never Junior J., never J.J., but Junior Junior. The older, called Just Junior after the birth of his son, had died of ‘the cancer’ as Granny C called it. …”

In older tales of the South, Black characters are one-dimensional people, usually illiterate, totally reliant on white largesse or mercy. In “The Trees,” it’s the Black characters who should take care of easy white people barely distinguishable from brutes. Their Misplaced Trigger, their Virgil Caine tragedies and their “economic anxiety” are erased. They’re merely silly, their violence missing any rational veneer — by no means thoughts their sense of superiority.

The plot is about in movement when Junior Junior Milam is discovered murdered — mutilated and castrated — alongside the physique of a younger Black man. Milam is the son-in-law of Granny C, who seems to be Carolyn Bryant. She was the girl who accused Emmett Until of wolf-whistling at her, which led to Until’s homicide.

Jim Davis and Ed Morgan, two Black members of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, are despatched to help the white native sheriff in investigating the crime. Then the corpse of the Black man disappears from the morgue, solely to indicate up once more when one other white man in Cash is murdered. Davis and Morgan shortly decide that the victims are descendants of those that murdered Until, and so they start to imagine the ghost of Until is taking his revenge.

"The Trees," by Percival Everett

When a 3rd man is murdered in the identical approach, this time in Illinois, the FBI sends a particular agent over from Atlanta to hitch the investigation. The three brokers are launched to Mama Z by an area waitress and start to piece collectively occasions. Because the murders escalate and make nationwide information, Everett summons horror tropes in service to notions of what justice may appear to be. And by visiting violence on the descendants of Until’s killers, he examines the notion of collective guilt — the best way it festers within the absence of reckoning or reconciliation.

In “The Trees,” Everett’s monumental expertise for wordplay — the type that provokes laughter and the type that gut-punches — is at its peak. He leans on the language of shock and hyperbole to impress reactions a historical past e-book might by no means elicit.

Witness the clarifying distinction between Mama Z and professor Damon Thruff, writer of an educational research of racial violence. Mama Z describes his e-book to him as “scholastic,” which Thruff perceives as insult. “‘Your book is very interesting,’ Mama Z said, ‘because you were able to construct three hundred and seven pages on such a topic without an ounce of outrage.’ Damon was visibly bothered by this. ‘One hopes that dispassionate, scientific work will generate proper outrage.’”

If solely that have been true. Consider what number of books on the Tulsa Race Bloodbath did not spark outrage till HBO’s reboot of a comic book e-book, “Watchmen,” lastly stimulated mass curiosity; how “Get Out” and “Lovecraft Country” pricked consciences left unscathed by a century of scholarship.

Everett employs these similar genres with out apology, however like one of the best of these exhibits he additionally assaults a query that canines current criticism. Racism is a horror, a supply of private and collective trauma. Whether or not horror is the suitable style for processing that trauma, even within the service of constructing empathy, has been the topic of cultural discussion. Can leisure educate, and may it keep away from exploitation?

The historical past of lynching is inextricable from leisure. White People turned images of lynching into postcards, morbid “wish you were here” selfies proving they have been witness to the killing of one other human being. So why shouldn’t Everett make it right into a play inside a play, thereby hoping to catch the conscience of the king?

If white readers who stay outdoors the South imagine themselves to be “in” on Everett’s joke, they too are in for a shock. The rash of revenge he unleashes captures these accountable for horrors far past the Jim Crow South, ultimately implicating nearly all of us.

Everett makes clear that the sins of the fathers fall upon all white People — anybody who has benefited from terror, intimidation or systematic repression, no matter whether or not they held the rope. He has made some audacious leaps over practically 40 years of writing, however “The Trees” could also be his most audacious. He makes a revenge fantasy into a comic book horror masterpiece. He turns narrative stakes into ethical stakes and raises them sky-high. Readers will snicker till it hurts.

Berry writes for plenty of publications and tweets @BerryFLW.

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